For freshmen, starting university presents a host of challenges: not least acclimatizing to a new environment and a group of new people from diverse backgrounds. As Director of DEI at the Nell Hodgson Woodruff of Nursing, Emory University, Benjamin Harris is working to ensure that issues of diversity and inclusion are brought to the attention of all students, whatever their background or prior knowledge.
GoodCourse co-founder Chris Mansfield spoke to Benjamin about his dedication to student outcomes, how the political landscape of America shapes access to education, and the methods he uses to engage his students with DEI issues.
At Emory, we’re trying to build a baseline understanding of topics like implicit bias, inclusion and what diversity means in action.
My journey into student success started at college. I had my mind set on going to North Central College in Illinois with my two twin brothers that are a few years older than me. However, I got in contact with my cousin, who was working in admissions at Elmhurst college. She thought it would be good for me to see what Elmhurst College had to offer. I had an opportunity to meet members of the Sociology faculty and the Multicultural Affairs Director at the time.
They set me on the institution in a matter of minutes! The Multicultural Affairs Director asked me why I wanted to go to school and what I was going to contribute to campus. He alerted me to the fact I had an obligation and responsibility to give to the community I was joining. I could tell he would be a great mentor – his care for me throughout the 4 years is something that has really stuck with me.
He was a great resource for my studies and was truly invested in my understanding of social dynamics. He gave me a language for what People of Color experience in America. At a predominantly White institution, he was a person that showed me I could get through it and be successful. Sadly, he passed away a few months ago. After graduation, he was somebody I would call with issues and concerns. Seeing what he did for me was ultimately what got me into student success. I wanted to be that guiding light for students, I was thinking, how could I do his job, and help young minds?
I work with the faculty to think about DEI as a whole across the School of Nursing – not only about race, but also about equity and community building. We have a great group of people in this institution, the question is how we make them feel included.
This work splits into three parts: professional development and educational awareness is one aspect; the next is culture and climate and the third is accountability. We look at our work through those lenses. We ask, how we can add more tools to our toolbox to address new concerns coming our way? 50% of our students are Students of Color. How do we make this space more inclusive, and one where they can learn from each other?
Culture and climate is about ensuring students bring their entire selves to the classroom. Sometimes when I talk to students about their experiences, they say I’m just trying to survive. We want them to thrive! Students pay an exorbitant amount of money to attend college. When they pay that much, they should be thriving.
Accountability is about how we hold ourselves accountable as an institution, like adding more tools to our toolbox, making the place more equitable, and addressing policies and procedures pertinent to DEI.
Our students come from different places – metropolitan hubs like New York and Chicago, and also rural places where they’re not around a diverse community before they come to the institution. At Emory, we’re trying to build a baseline understanding of topics like implicit bias, inclusion and what diversity means in action.
When racism and microaggressions exist, how can students be a part of interrupting those behaviors and advocating for the voiceless? Part of the work is setting up a baseline education around DEI concepts because sometimes we assume all students are going to know what these phrases mean, and that’s not always the case.
I worked a lot with undergrads in my previous role and what I think is really important is trying to offer different ways in which you can engage students. Some students will come to lectures, some will come to small discussions, and some will come to a cultural event or a dinner. You need to find multiple ways in which to engage students around DEI because everyone will have a different entry point.
I love to take notes at lectures and read, but it’s not the same for everyone! Our students come from many walks of life, and that’s a big part of it as well. Sometimes they’re further ahead of us as an institution, they want more inclusivity, and their expectations keep us sharpening our skills.
What I feel is a big challenge is that we as a country have not addressed issues of racism and hatred pointedly or consistently. We rarely have mandatory conversations about these topics – they’re nearly always optional, to prevent people from feeling discomfort. But we have to have these hard conversations to understand that the issues that are prevalent today are deep-rooted in our nation’s history. To understand 2022, you need to understand 1922, to understand 1922, you need to understand 1822!
People don’t want to address our history, and this keeps us a step behind when it comes to rooting out hate and acknowledging our collective responsibility to make the world a more inclusive and equitable place. We have a problem now where people want to cast blame, but don’t want to dedicate themselves to addressing the issues at hand.
Getting experience working genuinely and closely with the people you want to help and empower is important. Educating oneself on our country’s history around race, inequality, and the marginalization of certain groups gives a clear picture of why we have the DEI challenges in our society today. Also, understanding the landscape of the particular industry and the challenges they have regarding DEI is key.
Have good mentors that can guide you. Read and stay abreast of what is happening in one’s industry and the broader country, they are related. Lastly, take professional development seriously and keep learning, because the field and language is constantly changing.
Dr Jamie Washington of Washington Consulting Group – he’s a great mentor and very knowledgeable on DEI topics. He’s someone I often call with concerns, he’s also a great person and friend. Also Dr. Amer Ahmed, a colleague and another person I call when I have questions and concerns. They’re two great folks in the field that are doing the work.
I have a list, but the most recent book is The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee. It provides great historical context on the impact of racism in America and how our history impacts our present and future.. Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria? is another classic book about diversity and inclusion in the education context.
Medical Apartheid by Harriet A. Washington is another book that is particularly pertinent to my work in the School of Nursing. Racist America by Joe Feagin is excellent, as is White Fragility. Lastly, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander is a life changer.